Friday, October 15, 2010

The Perils of Power in a Season of Crises

The Perils of Power in a Season of Crises

Hank Eso

Sunday 10 October 2010

Nigerians confront a dicey situation. The perils of power become stark in a season of multiple crises. Absent a resolute, well-devised, and strategic tackling of the perplexing challenges confronting Nigeria, the leadership risks becoming distracted “and frantic-mad with evermore unrest.”

One never understands fully the perils of power and the essence of decision until an unforeseen national crisis unfolds. It is only then that all the pertinent variables begin to emerge in a jigsaw fashion; some transparent, and others as opaque as opaque can be.

Such instances present good, accomplished, and tested leaders an opportunity to flaunt their experience. For the untested, it presents an opportunity –a baptism by fire, of sorts—to prove that they are suitably qualified for the leadership role or for self-redemption. The Cuban Missile Crisis remains the classical textbook case study of a new leader challenged with an unprecedented national crisis.

Nigeria is a rich case-study resource for students of politics, development, management, psychology, sociology, criminal justice, journalism, and many other disciplines. Its sociopolitical climate never fails to present intriguing and unprecedented circumstances. Her 50th independence anniversary celebrations will go down in history as a season of crisis that offered a glimpse of how not to handle pressure politics and a national security crisis or a combination of both. It will also affirm, as this writer and many others have already adduced, that the greatest challenge to Nigeria and is nascent democracy, is insecurity (see It’s security, stupid! ).

Electioneering in Nigeria is routinely an invitation to cacophony and pandemonium. The run up to the 2011 elections, already electrified has by the zoning debate, has been worsened further by what some consider President Jonathan’s ill-advised declaration of his presidential candidacy. Suddenly, the nation was polarized and simmering dichotomies began to manifest afresh and in concrete terms.

As if the concerns about the overheated polity (a preferred Nigerian jargon) were not sufficient distraction, right on the eve of Nigeria’s half-century anniversary, John Campbell’s political-assessment article that characterized Nigeria as tethering on the brink engulfed the nation in the psychological crisis. Campbell’s commentary frazzled the political leadership, but surprisingly so, since concerns expressed about Nigeria, were nothing new or out of the ordinary. If it was a wakeup call, Campbell’s succeeded in getting the attention of Nigerians and more.

As the 1 October D-day arrived, rather than the usual celebratory fireworks, the nation was treated to a tragic terrorist bombing incident that resulted in the loss of lives. The bomb incident visibly shook usually unflappable Nigerians, leaving most with the gut-wrenching feeling that the nation was indeed on the brink. A non-salve aftershock to that incident was FIFA’s banning Nigeria from international events. Now Nigerians were truly traumatized and speechless. However, the great political drama and spin was just about to begin.

Given the perceived enormity of the bomb crisis, President Goodluck Jonathan reacted as he should and spoke publicly about the event, but with the slant that was not politically correct. What was not clear was whether he wanted to reassure the nation, as his staffers later claimed, or if he set out to blame his political opponents and, in the process, came pointedly across as exonerating MEND, even before the billowing smoke from the terrorist attack site had cleared. If the intention was to spin the tragic incident to a political advantage, it backfired badly. Wittingly or unwittingly, the president had stepped into the quicksand of political spin that was very avoidable, if his handlers understood their advisory remit.

Political spin is a possessive art by itself. Those adept at it make waves, score points, influence policy, and achieve intended outcomes. Those who are not, bungle, flounder, create confusion and even orchestrate national crisis, where there ought to be none.

Nigeria’s will eternally remember the 50th anniversary as one celebrated in a crisis mode. In the mix: the president, his political opponents, his handlers, and the observing Nigerian population. Of all the brouhaha that followed the bombing incident, one thing is starkly clear: President Jonathan’s minders goofed badly and big time. Hence, the president viewed instantly as having flunked a national crisis management test at a critical time in the life of a nation – all in his bid to win the 2011 presidential election.

One thing is certain. It is the president’s place and duty to speak to issues of national security and national interest, especially in times of obvious crisis. After all, there are national interest policy decisions that are too vital to our nascent democracy to be left solely to mainstream politicians and presumed captains of governance. Critics of the president have the right to speak up; yet, none of these people was elected as president or has the same responsibility as the person who occupies that seat.

But even with the best intentions, it is evident and must be admitted that the president and his minders succeeded in turning a national tragedy into a polarizing political disaster. If the aim was to prove that, the president was in charge and hands-on, it failed. If the perceived outcome of his intervention was the exoneration of MEND, when indeed he meant to reassure the nation, then the president and his team visibly flunked the strategic crisis-management test.

Without question, President Jonathan worsened the crisis with his precipitous, poorly articulated, rushed, and misguided decision to exonerate MEND. Matters and his problems have since been compounded by the claims made by Henry Okah, a MEND chieftain, that an aide of the president, who remains unnamed, prodded him to disavow MEND’s role in the carnage and instead heap the blame on northern politicians. Mr. Jonathan insinuated such exonerate-one-and-blame-the-other in his remarks and thus came across as partisan. As one observer unsympathetically put it,

"The incident momentarily stripped him of his presidential garb and wrapped him in the gaudy garments of a tribal chieftain.”

Even if it turns out that Okah lied or engaged in a self-serving spin, he has done extensive and irreparable damage to the credibility of Jonathan’s administration and to his presumptive presidential candidacy. This is a widely shared view around Nigeria.

Fluid National Circumstances and Discordant Electioneering Portend Deepening Crises

In times of national crises, it is customary for the population to rally around the flag. Quite on the contrary, in this instance, rather than rallying around the flag, the nation stands polarized. Moreover, the government has not been forthright with Nigerians. Likewise, some eminent northern leaders, whilst understandably angry at Jonathan for repudiating the zoning agreement, have not helped matters with their equally precipitous reckless comments. As usual, the victims are the Nigerian masses, who while grieving for lost compatriots and being apprehensive about where the next bomb might go off, essentially remain in the dark, having being availed very limited information. Surprisingly, in this instance, the public reaction—mostly expressions of disappointment -- were swift and broad.

The present crisis portends two possible outcomes: inconclusive investigations, in the usual Nigerian way, or the breaking of new grounds, with the culprits identified, arrested, tried and punished. Whatever is the case, this crisis above everything else, will define President Jonathan’s presidency, regardless of whether his tenure ends in May 2011 or beyond that date. As an eminent northerner, Adamu Ciroma inferred, “We’re now being blamed for what we don’t know anything about. Do you think we will have confidence in such a leader?” Furthermore, the present crisis offers numerous insightful lessons on leadership, decision-making, and strategic communications that is bereft of grandstanding and polemics. First, one cannot politicize a grave national crisis for political or personal gains. Not even a president is allowed that privilege. Indeed, governments have fallen over the mishandling of such matters.

Finally, the present crisis comes at the most awkward time for Nigeria and for President Jonathan. It also offers basis to assail his close aides and supporters for myopic policy consideration and not properly mapping out short, medium and long-term options open to the president. An electioneering year is usually fraught with imponderables and this season is no exception. Global and national expectation of Nigeria is mixed, and the notion that the nation is presently on the brink does not help matters either.

All these factors, taken together with the broad insecurity in the nation, would present an obvious challenge for any popular and trusted leader, talk less of a leader already embroiled in numerous political controversies. President Jonathan carries that added burden of managing and running a very unsettled nation, while at the same time focusing on these challenges and grappling with the attending distractions and demands of his candidacy. Such multi-tasking and the organizational acumen and strategic support required to pull it off, would seem rather daunting, considering that a singular event such as a small-scale terrorist bomb incident was from the outset so badly handled.

Here is my take: Nigerians confront a dicey situation. The perils of power become stark in a season of multiple crises. Absent a resolute, well-devised, and strategic tackling of the perplexing challenges confronting Nigeria, the leadership risks becoming distracted “and frantic-mad with evermore unrest”. The prevailing fluid national state of affairs and discordant electioneering portend deepening crisis, if not strategically well managed. For starters, President Jonathan will do well to divest himself of the image of being cloaked in partisan garb. A leader of a nation as complex as Nigeria must rise above the fray of partisanship. Meanwhile, Nigerians need answers. Was it MEND or, as the president and his spin doctors spurn it, the opposition using MEND’s name as a convenient cover? Nigerians will need to know who done it and unshakable government guarantees of national security. The answers are blowing in the wind.

With neither anger nor partiality, until next time, keep the law, stay impartial, and observe closely.


Hank Eso is a columnist for His observations on Nigerian, African and global politics and related issues, has appeared in various print media, journals and internet-based sites.

© Hank Eso, 10 October 2010.



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